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Church of the Holy City

Archive for August, 2010

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 22, 2010

Exodus 15:11-18 John 15:9-17 Psalm 33

This morning I thought I’d reflect on God’s infinite love. When we say “infinite love” it may be hard to grasp just what it means. Our minds cannot understand infinity. Therefore, I thought I’d say a few things about how God’s love interacts with us, and how tirelessly and lovingly God strives to bring us into a mutual relationship with Himself. And since all joy comes from what we love, when God brings us into His infinite love, He is bringing us into as much joy and happiness as we can bear.
Before we can understand how God unceasingly loves us, we need to do away with some false ideas about God. One false idea about God comes from too literal a reading of parts of the Old Testament. From some places, one can get the idea that God is a punishing God. That God takes revenge–even down to the 7th generation of those who offend Him. One can get the idea that God damns people to hell. Or that God sits on high making a list of all the offences that we mortals commit. But God is none of these things. When the Bible was written, long, long ago, people thought that way, so they saw God that way. Even so, there are other passages that talk about God’s unfailing love, as in the Psalm we read this morning. There, we find the words, “May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you” (Psalm 33:22). As our hopes rest in God, we will find His unfailing love. So God is not the damning, punishing God we can sometimes read about in the Old Testament. Swedenborg writes,
as [God] wills only what is good He can do nothing but what is good. . . . From these few statements it can be seen how deluded those are who think, still more, those who believe, and still more those who teach, that God can damn anyone, curse anyone, send anyone to hell, predestine any soul to eternal death, avenge wrongs, be angry or punish. he cannot even turn Himself away from a person, nor look upon him with a stern countenance (TCR 56).
On the contrary, God is nothing but love and mercy. God wants to give to the whole human race all that He has. He wants to give everyone happiness and peace. We can think about the love that parents have for their children when we think about God. Parents never cease to care for their children. Parents want always to help their children. Parents want to give to their children all they can to make their lives happy. This is an image of heavenly love, which angels extend to everyone, and which God extends to everyone.
Heavenly love is not to wish to be one’s own, but to belong to all; so that one wishes to give all the things which are one’s own to others; in this the essence of heavenly love consists. The Lord, because He is love itself, or the essence and life of the love of all in the heavens, wishes to give to the human race all things that are His (AC 1419).
And in order to make us happy, God gently lifts us out of our harmful behaviors and the evils that limit true joy. This is the nature of love, and God is love itself.
To love itself, no other attributes are competent than those which are of pure love; thus of pure mercy towards the universal human race; which is, that it wills to save all and make them happy to eternity, and to transfer into them all things of its own; thus from pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow to heaven; that is, to itself, by the strong power of love (AC 1735).
It’s passages like this that cause me to reflect on my own life. A while back I was in a very unhappy place. In fact, I was miserable. But as is so often the case, I was in love with my misery. Not happy as I am now, but happy to be a miserable cuss. Several factors made me that way. First, there was the University system itself. In higher education, there is the idea that life is meaningless and bleak. I remember a friend of mine coming into the classroom, dropping her books on the table and exclaiming, “Do I really have to believe that everything is meaningless in order to maintain my academic credibility?” I mentioned this to a professor of mine later, and he said, “yes.” If I wrote a paper on how happy my life was and that I believed in a loving, caring God, it would have been rejected. So, in order to survive, I came to accept some of that outlook. But there was more. I had suffered what I thought were some personal betrayals and setbacks. My own dreams seemed crushed. This made me bitter, cynical, and angry at life. And I had no concern for the world around me. I said what I wanted, and made my own pain everyone else’s pain. I said uncaring things, and made everyone who came around me as miserable as I was. I was living most of my waking life in bars, when I wasn’t in the classroom. And a couple bar owners, who had come to like me, actually gave me a heart-to-heart. They told me that they knew that I had gone through some hard times, but could I please be nicer to their wait-staff, who had complained about how mean and harsh I was treating them. I didn’t care and I didn’t change. It was as if I was trying to be evil. I ended up being kicked out of my favorite bars. It came to the point where I was drinking alone and drowning my poor, wounded self in alcohol. (One bar remembered me two years later and still wouldn’t let me in.) But through all this, I still believed in God. It was just that my personal contact with God seemed very distant. I don’t know if I’m alone in this. And this isn’t the whole story. I did have some friends, and there were some moments of happiness. It’s just that these evils stand out from this period in my life. Perhaps others can see a point in their lives where the light of God’s love seemed distant.
But God didn’t leave me there. I look back on that miserable time, and I wonder. In fact, when I look back on that time in my life, I’m scared for how I could have ended up. I am now living such a more full, happy, and loving life, it’s almost hard for me to imagine my life back then. I am free of resentments and anger. I am no longer cynical or bitter. I see the good things God has given me, and I am grateful for the life I have. I try to be good to all the people I come in contact with, instead of spreading misery. This change was all God’s doing. As Swedenborg says, “the Divine love is to will the salvation of all and the happiness of all from inmosts and in fullness” (HH 397). And what I am talking about is genuine salvation. As I look back on it, I envision God smiling on me saying, “My dear David, trying so hard to be bad.” I can’t point to any one great saving event that changed me. Of course the program of AA was a big help. But beside that, I can point only to God’s ceaseless love washing over me, lifting me out of the hell I had made for myself. He surrounded me with good, loving, and I must add tolerant people. I think of a line from Saint Augustine, “O Lord, Thou pluckest me out.” God lifts him out of what he called the fleshpots of his life, even as God had lifted me out of the misery I had built up for myself.
This story shows the nature of God, as God really is. God was thinking how I was depriving myself of the joy and happiness that heaven consists in. And God wanted to bring me into a loving relationship with Himself and with my neighbors. And He wanted this, because He knows that all true joy and happiness come from love and from giving. So rather than judge the bad things in me, and condemn me to hell, God instead lifted me up to a place where I could begin to receive heaven into my heart. He lifted me up to a place where God’s very essence of love, joy, and happiness could fill my heart and fill me with the happiness I now know. We all have that capacity to receive God’s continually inflowing love and wisdom. Swedenboirg tells us,
By accepting love and wisdom from the Lord, we are then raised up and furnished with all the means for the acceptance of love and wisdom. Moreover, we are so created that we can accept them if we are only willing to (DLW 171).
I might dispute Swedenborg, here, because I don’t know exactly how willing I really was to receive God’s love and wisdom. But somehow God got through.
That’s the way God is. That is the God that I worship and adore. That’s the way God’s love for the whole human race operates. Swedenborg describes God as the source of everything joyous in heaven–which we can to some degree know now on earth.
Heavenly love is not to wish to be one’s own, but to belong to all; so that one wishes to give all the things which are one’s own to others; in this the essence of heavenly love consists. The Lord, because He is love itself, or the essence and life of the love of all in the heavens, wishes to give to the human race all things that are His (AC 1419).
I’m still a work in progress, as we all are. God’s love acts upon us throughout our lives and through eternity, drawing everyone upward into a deeper relationship with Himself and into greater happiness. We need only remain open to God, and it is His pleasure to give us the kingdom.

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The Many Colors of Charity
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
August 8, 2010

Exodus 12:30-38 John 4:3-15, 20-26 Psalm 22

Religion can be summed up in Jesus’ two great commandments: love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love the neighbor as yourself. Thus we find religion as a force uniting everyone as neighbors in God’s care and love. But too often, we find religion separating people, and differing beliefs become a source of division between neighbors. And we also find other external things that cause division between people such as race, nationality, and socio-economic standing. But love for the neighbor means that we must put aside the things that divide. To be true Christians, we must look beyond the external things that cause us to look askance at our brothers and sisters. Our Bible readings this morning talk about inclusiveness between people, and argue against division. They treat of union between people of differing backgrounds, races, and nationalities.
Israel first takes on an identity as a people with the Exodus. We heard about the Exodus this morning. And as Israel becomes a nation united under Yahweh, they are an inclusive group. The Bible tells us that, “A mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). This means that all the many peoples in Egypt who were escaping oppression from the Egyptian power structure joined with the Israelites in their flight. The presence of foreigners in the Israelite population continues throughout the history of Israel. There are laws that recur repeatedly against oppressing foreigners with the reminder that the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt. It is only later in Israelite history that ethnic purity is called for, and even then there are voices that oppose it.
Jesus also shows openness toward those of differing ethnicity than the Jews. We heard about this in the story of the woman at the well. She is a Samaritan, and she is surprised that Jesus is talking with her. She says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” The editor then adds, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” The Jews looked down on the Samaritans in Jesus’ day. The Samaritans were originally brought to Israel from Assyria, so their bloodline was not Jewish. Their religious practice and texts differed from that of Judaism, so the Jews saw them as not orthodox, in fact, heretics. We see something of this in the woman’s words. She says, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). This is a reference to Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans had their own temple. There was outright hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans at various times in their history. And yet we find Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman and offering her the gift of eternal life. The feud between Samaria and Judea is also alluded to in the famous parable about the good Samaritan. This parable is so well known that we can forget the ethnicity of the Samaritan man who shows compassion. Jesus uses the despised Samaritan man as an example of love to the neighbor, while the ritually pure Levite and priest are the ones who do not show love. Jesus was also open to other marginalized and despised people–tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and even Pharisees.
We find the theme of inclusiveness in the Psalm we read this morning. There we find, “All the ends of the earth will remember the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow before Him.” The Nations refers to those countries outside Israel, and we see that they and the whole earth will worship the Lord.
These scriptures need to be taken to heart. Christ’s openness to all peoples calls us into a like openness. Our Christian charity needs to extend to the whole world. We need to open our arms to all peoples and races–black, Native, Chinese, Middle-Eastern, East Indian, and people of all callings and socio-economic standing. If we see differences instead of likeness, we throw up a barrier between us and them. Our society is making great strides toward inclusiveness, and I consider these strides a part of God’s New Church coming down to earth. I can remember the day when there were no African-American actors on TV. Now in Hollywood Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Lawrence Fishburn, Denzel Washington, and others are starring in role after role. And the remarkable thing is that they are not seen as African-American actors–they are seen as actors. I can remember Jessica Savitch, who was the first female anchor woman on a new program. Now women broadcast on every channel. In the US there are woman chief justices on the Supreme Court and in Congress. England had a female Prime Minister. I am still learning about Canadian politics, but I assume the trend is the same here. I just got back from Almont, one of our church camps, and I was delight to see the children playing together without regard to race. We had Chinese, African-Americans and whites at this camp and the children didn’t see any difference, but all played together. That is, when they weren’t fighting and hitting each other, as children also do.
And we need to open our arms to people of all faiths–Hindu, Moslem, Buddhist, Taoist, and the various denominations of Christianity. Our church has no monopoly on God. Our openness also needs to extend to those who profess no faith. We do not know what lies in their hearts. Swedenborg has a beautiful passage about this:
In the Christian world the doctrinals are what distinguish the churches; and from them people call themselves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, or the Reformed and the Evangelical, and by other names also. It is from what is doctrinal alone that they are so called; which would not be at all, if they would only make love to the Lord and charity to the neighbor the principal things of faith. The doctrinals would then be only varieties of opinion respecting the mysteries of faith, which truly Christian people would leave to everyone according to his or her conscience, and would say in their heart that one is truly a Christian when he or she lives as a Christian, or as the Lord teaches. Thus from all the differing churches there would be one Church; and all the dissensions which exist from doctrine alone would vanish; yes, the hatreds against one another would be dissipated in a moment, and the Lord’s kingdom would come upon the earth (AC 1799).
This is one beautiful teaching of our church. In the faith which we say every morning, we find this teaching. We say, “As the God-Man who lives with us, He is present to save all people, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.” We can affirm this while practicing Christianity as we know it. And this, too, is in our faith. In it, we find the words, “For us, this best is to love the Lord, and to love one another as He has loved us.” Being accepting of other faiths does not mean that we need to relinquish what we find beautiful in our own faith.
The beliefs and delights of the human race are as various as are our faces and dispositions. Swedenborg writes, “When I only thought of two being just alike, or equal, angels expressed horror, saying that every one thing is formed from the harmonious concurrence of many things” (HH 405). Society and the church are perfected by a harmonious blend of various personalities, beliefs, and delights. Paul alludes to this in 1 Corinthians 12:
12The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
Swedenborg sees the source of all beauty in a harmony of varieties.
Heaven also is a one from various parts disposed into a most perfect form; for the heavenly form is the most perfect of all forms. That such is the source of all perfection is manifest from all the beauty, charm, and delight that affect both the senses and the mind; for they exist and flow from no other source than from the consent and harmony of many concordant and agreeing particulars . . . Hence it is said that there is delight in variety, and it is known that the delight is according to the variety (HH 56).
Love for the neighbor means being “color blind” as some say. Multiculturalism is a religious issue. Christ reached out to everyone in His day–tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans. And as Christians, we are called to be like Christ in His own acceptance of variety. Early Israel was open to the foreigners who were seeking liberating and a God of liberation. And like the early Israelites, we are called to be open to people who may look foreign to us. This will ultimately benefit us. There is perfection in variety. And our joy will multiply as we include the whole human race as our brothers and sisters.

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